Last Mother's Day, Sarah Baldry and her family went out to dinner at the local T.G.I. Friday's. Shortly after she and her husband settled 4-year-old Megan and 11-month-old Kaitlyn into booster seats, a large group sat down in the next booth, with a handful of kids ranging from infancy to about age 5.
Even in the normal din of the family restaurant, their noise was overpowering. "These children were screaming, yelling, running up and down the restaurant, and throwing food," said Baldry, of Middleville, Michigan. "It was amazing how rude and out of control they were. At one point, I looked over, and there was actually a toddler walking on the table. And the parents weren't even trying to get them to behave."
The commotion was so awful that the waiter apologized profusely and offered the Baldrys dinner on the house. "I don't get it," Sarah said later. "I know it isn't easy, but I can manage to get my kids to sit still and to talk quietly in a restaurant. Why can't other people?"
Baldry isn't the only person asking that question. In a poll by Associated Press-Ipsos, 69 percent of respondents said that people were ruder today than they were a generation ago -- and children are among the worst offenders. Ninety-three percent said that today's parents are not doing a good job when it comes to teaching kids to behave politely.
No one is complaining, of course, about the age-appropriate tantrums that most kids have once in a while. And no one is labeling children as rude just because they occasionally hit, scream, or pout. What people are up in arms about is bona fide brattiness -- obnoxious public behavior that is totally ignored by the adult in charge. Scandalized, they share stories about the 4-year-old who kicked the back of their airplane seat all the way from Maine to Miami, the sassy 3-year-old who terrorized every checkout clerk at Target, or the 5-year-old Tony Soprano who knocked four kids down on his way to the monkey bars.
Experts cite many reasons why today's children score so high on the obnoxo-meter, but a main one is that their parents are too time-crunched to discipline them. "The real issue is that adults are tired, and when they come home after a busy day at work, they don't want any conflict," says Parents advisor Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! "So parents just let stuff slide more. And if you let rude behavior go even once or twice, your child learns that he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants."
When Dan Kindlon, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard University, interviewed parents for his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, 50 percent described themselves as more permissive than their parents had been. And while being "permissive" doesn't necessarily lead to rudeness, there's often a correlation. "Most of the kids who misbehave in public have never been given limits or told what's inappropriate and what's not," Dr. Kindlon says.
As a result, standards for behavior have hit an all-time low. "Many parents feel that as long as they teach children to say please and thank you, their kids will be considered polite," says Frances Stott, PhD, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development, in Chicago. Other important manners -- speaking softly, sitting quietly in public, or addressing an elderly neighbor with extra respect -- are waved off as an impossible dream.
But there's more behind the brattiness epidemic than the hectic pace of modern life: Some experts believe that rude children are the product of a sea change among American parents, who are more aware than ever of the cognitive, emotional, and psychological needs of their kids. And that leads them to become overly indulgent. For example, "So many moms believe that kids need to climb everywhere and explore everything in order to develop their creative side," Dr. Stott says. And while that may be acceptable in our own living rooms, it can create a nightmare in public places. "The pendulum has swung so far that a lot of moms and dads have just lost perspective," she says.
In fact, many parents act more like therapists than authority figures. "So when their kid says 'Shut up,' they immediately make an excuse -- he's tired, he's hungry, he's dealing with the stressful transition from nursery school to home," says Parents advisor William J. Doherty, PhD, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul. "Parents think their kids are so fragile that they forget to say, 'Whoa! Do not talk to me that way.'"
Others point to the "self-esteem" movement as a culprit behind the rampant rudeness. "From the time that they're born, we're constantly telling our children how talented, marvelous, bright, gifted, and creative they are," says P.M. Forni, PhD, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and author of Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct. "But when we feed them oversize portions of self-esteem, we create children who are overly self-involved."
What's more, lots of today's moms and dads view themselves as their child's biggest fan and staunchest advocate. And while that's not necessarily a bad thing, overly fierce defensiveness on the part of parents has made everyone -- even teachers -- feel a bit skittish about helping kids learn manners. "I had a child yell at me in class, and I corrected him," says Shannon Arlington, a second-grade teacher in Middleport, New York. "I told him that shouting was not a polite way to speak to a teacher. That evening, his mother called and yelled at me too, saying how dare I give her child a lecture on what is and isn't polite."
Making matters even worse is the fact that we're raising our children in a society where there's a high premium on rude and obnoxious behavior. Whether it's Simon Cowell's sarcastic put-downs on American Idol or the constant wisecracks from cartoon characters, much of today's media teaches children that it's cool to act like a brat. So it's no wonder kids unleash their need for instant gratification when they're out in public.
"I work in a bakery, and I've seen kids hit, kick, and call their parents names because they want something, and nine times out of 10, they get it," says Jenny Vargas, a mother of three in Phoenix. "I have had kids come up to my counter and say 'Give me that cake,' without a please, a thank you, or a smile. And their parents don't correct them."
What's more, often it's the parents who model that give-it-to-me-right-now-or-else attitude. "My son, Ryan, who's 6, was waiting in line at a street fair to have his face
painted," recalls Brenda Padula, of Franklin, Massachusetts. "Then, a woman and her son cut right in front of him. I know she overheard my son complaining to me about it, but she never even acknowledged what she had done."
In the short term, such behavior makes the world less pleasant for all of us. But experts also worry about the more enduring consequences of bratty behavior among kids. Dr. Doherty thinks that children who aren't taught to behave considerately are at a disadvantage compared with their peers who are. "Developmentally, preschoolers are ready to learn empathy and to take the perspective of someone else," he says. "When parents don't show them how to do that, kids develop a very self-centered approach to the world."
As early as 3 and 4, children can be taught that it's unacceptable to disturb other people or to behave in a loud and obnoxious way. "Kids need to learn to modulate their voices and to realize that they're not the most important person in the room," says Bridget Roach, a kindergarten teacher in Summit, Illinois. "The children who haven't developed these skills by the time they get to kindergarten aren't well-liked by other kids, and that can make their problems even worse."
Some experts say that rude children are more likely to encounter problems in school and even to get in trouble with the police eventually. And obnoxious behavior in kids can easily escalate into downright dangerous behavior later in life. After all, isn't the kid who thinks that it's okay to yell at his T-ball coach more likely to be the one throwing beer bottles onto the field at Yankee Stadium someday?
That's why child-development experts emphasize that it's critically important for parents to teach their kids to behave in a civil way -- not only out of consideration for others, but for their own good as well. "People like being around polite children, and they react to them in a positive way," says Parents contributing editor Peggy Post, coauthor of Emily Post's The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children. "So teaching a child to be well-mannered can actually make life a lot more pleasant for him -- as well as for the people he encounters."
That's why it's critical to teach children from the get-go that they can't make a scene in a shopping mall or run wild in a restaurant. "Etiquette and good manners are not stuffy old notions from the past," Post says. "They are really useful social skills that will help a child throughout his life."
Dr. Forni thinks one of the primary jobs of a parent is to teach her children how to behave. "When we teach manners, we open up the world of altruism for our kids," he says. "And that's one of the most important gifts we can give them."